Hot Wheels don’t drift. Hot Wheels don’t jump. They don’t have flaming rocket boosters, either, unless you’re playing a video game. But Velan Studios, the company that brought Mario Kart to life with a camera-equipped R/C car for your Nintendo Switch, is about to do the same for Hot Wheels.
For $130, Hot Wheels: Rift Rally gives you a kid-football-size R/C car with a first-person view of your living room on your iPhone, iPad, or PlayStation-connected TV screen — a view the game combines with graphics to create the illusion you’re playing something far more dangerous and exciting.
When I hold down the accelerator button and look at the actual plastic car, it just pokes around doing basic turns. It seems slow! But when I look down at the iPhone in my hands, it’s suddenly blazing-fast: jets boosting, screen shaking, tires smoking as I drift underneath a real-world desk. The entire shape of the car elongates as it rockets through the office.
When I hit a jump, the car on my screen gets big air — even though the real-life toy I’m driving never left the ground.
This is possible because the 1080p camera mounted atop the “Chameleon,” as it’s called, is only aimed at your living room, never capturing the physical car at all. The on-screen Hot Wheels car is entirely digital, and that means it can do whatever its creators want, including jumps, drifts, donuts, wheelies, and endos.
Depending on what you’re doing, the game can make the physical car react appropriately, too: a drift feels like a drift because the game takes away some of your ability to steer. “We manipulate the steering in the physical car so you’re not turning that sharply, and then we oversteer so you go back,” says executive producer Nick Ruepp.
All you need to do, it seems, is connect the car to your phone, PlayStation, or either 2.4GHz or 5GHz Wi-Fi 5 (the best pick for whole-home reliability, says Ruepp), place the four included “gates” around your home, and drive through all of them once so the game can build a virtual track.
In one challenge, it digitized the gates into classic Chinese bridges and arches, some with giant bells that would ring as I raced through, all while a flying dragon dropped balls of flame. In another, cherry blossom trees sprouted from the ground, also covered in cherry blossoms, that the player had to sweep off the track to win.
The track isn’t all that morphs: the game can digitally change the Chameleon into any of 20 different Hot Wheels cars at launch, each with their own feel. Velan says there are 20 different parameters, including upgradable ones like speed, acceleration, braking, boost, and energy but also under-the-hood variables like “looseness of the steering” and “how quickly the car comes back to straight.”
“Through a single remote control car we can give you the experience of driving everything from a car, to a truck, to a Formula One style car,” says David Pokress, the company’s chief marketing officer.
You can play a campaign mode with a basic grid of various two- to three-minute challenges, a multiplayer mode where up to four people can race simultaneously (if they have their own R/C car), and a PlayStation exclusive mode where you need a controller for each player but only one car — each waits their turn for the Chameleon to morph into their car of choice.
I didn’t get the names of all 20 cars in the game, but here are the names I hastily jotted down during my demo:
If you buy the $150 Collectors Edition you’ll see at the top of this story, you also get a McLaren Senna and an exclusive physical die-cast version of the existing Hot Wheels car with an orange “Spectraflame” paint job.
Each of the different digital cars has different in-game powers, like Bone Shaker’s ability to leave a trail of flames on the track, and each has seven different liveries to unlock with their own stats. The R/C car also has a few LED lights that can match the color you pick.
Practically, you’re going to need a bit of space to play with something like this; the company says that a 10-foot-by-10-foot living room is “kind of the minimum,” and you may want to caution kids about chairs. Some Hot Wheels cars, like the Twin Mill, are rendered shorter than the actual Chameleon vehicle, and I smacked the camera right into a chair leg that it seemed I’d be able to fit under.
Both carpet and rugs are okay, though, since the Chameleon has large grippy wheels that can easily transition. “We actually condition velocity for thick-pile carpets,” says Ruepp, explaining that the twin-motor RWD car’s inertial sensors can detect when it’s not traveling at the right speed and automatically increase throttle so you don’t bog down. You can also manually select a slightly less pokey speed for the physical car, and he says you should be able to play for two full hours that way.
The car doesn’t come with a charger, a little surprising for the price but potentially good for the planet — because it does have a USB-C port and A-to-C cable that should let it charge from any USB adapter you’ve got sitting around the house. Ruepp suggests its 6.66Wh battery takes roughly two to three hours to charge from zero to 100 percent but that you can get a shorter play session out of it after about 30 minutes.
I left my demo convinced that Hot Wheels: Rift Rally is a neat combination of gadget and game — and way more interesting than the brand’s previous digital attempts. But I’m not yet sure it’d stick for me and my kids. I’m looking forward to a full test.
It’ll be out for PS4, PS5, and iOS on March 14th, however, you can already preorder both the Standard and Collector’s Edition direct from Hot Wheels. Unfortunately, there are no plans for Nintendo, Xbox, Android, or Windows PCs quite yet.